Exploration to Conduct Survey of Florida's Coral Reefs

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University (Harbor Branch) has been selected by the Waitt Institute for Discovery to carry out a series of voyages of exploration in the Straits of Florida and beyond, according to a Dec. 4 press release.

The Waitt Institute, in partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is making available cutting edge, unmanned, deep ocean exploration tools called autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). The inaugural expedition launched on December 4, and taps the scientific expertise and resources of Harbor Branch to explore Florida's rare and vulnerable deep coral reefs.

The expedition will use the AUVs to create high-definition sonar maps of deep water Lophelia coral reefs. These Deep Sea Coral Ecosystems (DSCEs) are threatened by bottom trawling and other human-caused impacts. The detailed bathymetric maps compiled during the CATALYST ONE mission will provide data to researchers and government officials on potential areas for designation as marine protected areas and habitat areas of particular concern in order to protect these fragile resources.

The expedition will be led by John Reed, research professor at Harbor Branch, who has been studying and working to protect these deep corals for over 30 years. "Currently, there are better maps of the surface of the moon and Mars than the sea bottom off Florida's coastline," said Reed. "Our mission is to use the two AUVs to map this area of Florida's deep sea coral reefs for the first time."

For the initial expedition, Harbor Branch is contributing ocean exploration expertise, expedition logistics, science plan development and execution, as well as exploration resources, including the research vessel Seward Johnson.

A newly-formed partnership dubbed the CATALYST Program is making this and future expeditions possible. CATALYST is a partnership between Waitt Institute for Discovery and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to carry out a series of deep-sea expeditions that make available for the first time a versatile and highly portable deep-sea tool kit and operations team, which can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world.

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